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Smarter Traffic Signals Could Make Commuting Easier

Washington, D.C., one of the most congested cities in the country, is testing technology that could ease traffic gridlock.

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Can technology ease traffic gridlock in the nation’s capital? City officials in Washington, D.C., are launching a two-year test to find out.

The D.C. metro area regularly turns up on lists of the nation’s most congested cities. A study from Texas A&M University’s Texas Traffic Institute estimated that D.C. commuters spent 74 hours stuck in traffic in 2010 -- worse than New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.

Rob Mancini, chief technology officer for Washington, D.C., thinks smart traffic management can shave off some of those hours spent commuting and improve public safety too. In 2013, Mancini’s office, along with the D.C. Department of Transportation, will begin connecting traffic signals to existing high-speed network cables that run beneath city streets. Once connected to the network, the signals will be equipped with video cameras and Wi-Fi hot spots. The test program will cover traffic lights at 16 intersections.

The program will explore the feasibility of a number of potential improvements, Mancini says. For instance, the city will test whether power can be delivered to stoplights through the communications network -- using a technique called “power over Ethernet” -- which could keep traffic signals operating when traditional power lines are down. The city also will experiment with sending live traffic video to police officers and traffic management centers.

“When we have a problem at a particular intersection, we could use the camera and the Wi-Fi hot spot to send video to the nearest police cruiser and show them where we have an issue,” Mancini says. “Assuming we ultimately go beyond our 16 test blocks, this could mean a much more rapid response to traffic issues in the city.”

Besides improving the daily commute, broad deployment of smart traffic management technology could strengthen overall emergency response in the nation’s capital. When a relatively mild earthquake struck the area in 2011, thousands of office workers were evacuated from their buildings. When they attempted to head home, they jammed the streets and brought traffic to a standstill. The new system could give traffic managers much better information about conditions in the city and let them take control of traffic signals to speed future evacuations.

Mancini says the smart traffic experiment is possible because of Washington, D.C.’s commitment to building a high-speed information network that stretches throughout the city. More than 350 miles of fiber-optic cable already snake through conduit and plumbing beneath the streets. And the city expects to complete an additional 170 miles of cabling by late next year.

“The sky’s the limit when you have this level of connectivity,” Mancini says.

Indeed, he envisions Wi-Fi hot spots at traffic intersections providing valuable services and applications to D.C. commuters while they wait for the lights to change. During emergencies, when cellular networks often become overloaded with callers, drivers stuck in traffic could still text a message home, Mancini says. In more routine situations, drivers could simply access free city apps that report traffic conditions and recommend alternative routes.

It’s unlikely the traffic management system -- no matter how smart it is -- will completely eliminate traffic hassles in one of the nation’s most congested cities. But if it works, the technology could make a tough commute a little easier.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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